Five Quilts for Five Sisters: A Goodbye Gift from Their Mother

They thought they knew everything about their mother, but she had one last surprise for them.

Posted in , Jan 25, 2021

Brenda Graham with a quilt; photo courtesy Brenda Graham

Mama loved to surprise us. A box of her homemade fudge. A recording of a poem she’d memorized. Little gifts she’d brought back from a trip. Even with 10 of us—five boys and five girls—she always found ways to make each of us feel special.

Mama passed away in December 1997 at age 93. Two months later, on a cold gray February morning, four of us sisters gathered at our childhood home in Clarkesville, Georgia, to go through her things. Only our middle sister, Jackie, couldn’t make it; she’d stayed in Florida to nurse her sick husband.

Years before, Mama had already given each of us the big items she’d wanted us to have. Today we had a system: We each took the gifts we’d given her, then made stacks of items for the rest of the family, including her 34 grandchildren.

We sorted Mama’s many handkerchiefs. “She never went without a handkerchief tucked into her dress,” Pat, the oldest, reminded us. We went through the cupboards and linen closet; each teapot or embroidered pillowcase sparked more memories. Then it was time to go upstairs.

Although Mama hadn’t been able to climb the steps for a long time, she knew exactly where everything was up there. She would send someone to fetch a pair of scissors or a skein of yarn, telling them not just which drawer to check, but whether left, right, back or front. She knew every knickknack in every box, in the cedar chest, in the nooks and crannies of her enormous closet.

It took hours to divide her treasures into orderly batches. We piled them on the beds, the dressers, even the window ledges. But we still hadn’t tackled Grandfather’s big black trunk. It was more than a hundred years old and sat at the very back of the closet.

The trunk’s hinges groaned as we raised the heavy lid. We pulled out old coats, prom dresses, baby sweaters, all things we remembered. An old, yellowed sheet was spread across the bottom of the trunk. Was there something beneath it? I pulled back the sheet. We all gasped. There lay a mosaic quilt top, tiny squares of velvet in burgundy, green and gold.

Ginger lifted it carefully. Another quilt top, this one patterned with triangles of blue and pink. One by one, four quilt tops and one full quilt emerged from the trunk. “Five quilts, five girls,” Suzanne said in awe.

“Have any of you ever seen these before?” Pat asked. We shook our heads.

“Mama knew they were here,” Ginger said, fingering the velvet. “Why didn’t she tell us?” We had no answer.

“Do you think she made them herself?” I asked.

“Could be,” Suzanne said, though as far as we knew, Mama had never had the time to make quilts as fine as these. Hers were practical, made for warmth with scraps of old coats and trousers, nothing fancy like these.

We searched the trunk for a note, but there were no clues to the quilts’ origins. We decided to give Jackie the completed quilt. I got the top with the blue gingham triangles that matched the dress Mama had described wearing when she met Daddy.

Over six months of quilting parties, I turned that top into a finished quilt. On chilly nights, I snuggle under its warmth, its patchwork of memories and mysteries. We’ll never know for sure if Mama made the quilts, but we do know she put them in the trunk for her daughters to find. She gave each of us one last beautiful surprise.

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